"Indeed, a minimum of life, an unchaining from all coarser desires, an independence in the middle of all kinds of outer nuisance; a bit of Cynicism, perhaps a bit of ‘tub’."
Friedrich Nietzsche

18 Mar 2013

A Philosophy of Tramping—William Henry Davies

A re-edited version of the original post is now published in Chapter 10 of
Published by Feral House February 2020


Although W. H. Davies (1871–1940) preferred to be known as a poet—a lifelong ambition achieved at huge sacrifice—it is for his prose memoirs of twelve years tramping in the Americas and Britain, and recorded in The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp (1908), that he is best known. I must confess that I am not a great fan of Davies' poetry, weighed down as it is by metaphors of nature and rhyming couplets and quatrains; the most recognisable of which are probably the opening two lines of his poem 'Leisure': What is this life if, full of care / We have no time to stand and stare... And so for the purposes of this post, I rely on Davies' prose autobiographies for my research into his tramping exploits. 

Davies was certainly a complex character, neither entirely at one with other tramps, being too bookish, nor comfortable in the literary world of London, having arrived in that company as something of a social oddity. But then neither did Davies enjoy the strained and mannered company of literary and high society London, rather being drawn, as he acknowledges in the opening line to his prose work, The True Traveller (1912), ‘to ill-dressed people and squalid places.’ In terms of his writing, although Davies describes himself as a 'natural genius', he was at the same time highly self-deprecating and insecure.

Then we have Davies seemingly contradictory attitudes to women and shocking remarks about African-Americans. But then transposing the political correctness of our present day on to those who lived in an altogether different world, leads nowhere. I quote again from former tramp and pulp Western novelist, Louis L'Amour, when he said that, ‘The only way men or women can be judged is against the canvas of their own time.’ Though Davies acknowledged preferring male company and frequently discusses women in derogatory terms, at the same time, he demonstrated a profound tenderness and care towards women, especially women on hard times; a fondness that was reciprocated by many of the women he encountered. For the most part, then, he was a gentle and vulnerable soul, but one whose passions could also be raised. He describes, for instance, in The True Traveller, how incensed he became with a man for refusing to pay a prostitute, that he involved himself in a fight with the man in order that she be paid.

Of Davies relationship with women, more later, but, in addition to all these paradoxes in Davies' character, it would appear that Davies' reputation was not helped by some of those who who offered him patronage, neither was it helped by contemporary and more recent commentators. He is described, for instance, as marrying a 23 year old prostitute at the age of 50, yet there is no evidence that Davies' wife Helen was ever a prostitute. In terms of his patrons, Davies does not name George Bernard Shaw in his autobiography as one of the writers to whom he sent out copies of his first volume of poetry (The Soul's Destroyer, 1905) but Shaw was one of the main reasons for Davies becoming a celebrity; adopting him as a project, a curiosity with which to entertain the literary world of his time. The title 'Super-tramp' was Shaw's own suggestion as a marketing gimmick for the book; a play on Shaw's own work Man and Superman, and a title that Davies came to resent. He was essentially a very modest man who, while enjoying his success, shunned and was embarrassed by the personal attention he received. My reader can judge for themselves if they wish to look at the Preface that Shaw wrote for The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp, but, in spite of its complements, I personally find the piece patronising, almost an apology for it being there in the first place and barely disguising that the novelty of the book's hero outweighed any literary merit of its author. As Shaw's comments, ‘It is a placid narrative, unexciting in matter and unvarnished in manner, of the commonplaces of a tramp's life.’ Again, it is for others to judge just how unexciting and commonplace was Davies' prose, or indeed his life.

Early Days

Following the death of his father and remarriage of his mother at the age of three, Davies was raised by his paternal grandparents who ran the Church House Inn in Newport, South Wales. Davies was used to travel and adventure from an early age. He describes how his (frequently inebriated) grandfather, a Cornish ex-sea captain, made several trips with Davies and his brother between Newport and Bristol on a schooner named the Welsh Prince.


His taste for alcohol, Davies credits with being raised in a pub and given porter to drink at bedtime, ‘in lieu of cocoa or tea, as is the custom in more domestic houses.’ Even after his grandparents left the pub and retired, Davies recalls these as happy times in a home consisting of: ‘grandfather, grand-mother, an imbecile brother, a sister, myself, a maid- servant, a dog, a cat, a parrot, a dove, and a canary bird.

Although an able scholar, and, excelling in sport and the pugilistic arts, Davies was also a frequent truant and hell raiser. His schooling came to an abrupt end when a gang of petty thieves, of which he was the ringleader, was caught and jailed. They were returned to their homes after receiving their sentence of 12 strokes of the birch. It is interesting here to note, that a recurring theme of many of the tramp writers I have discussed so far, share a similar start in life to that of Davies: loss of a father at an early age, pugilistic prowess, truancy, alcohol (sometimes), and petty crime accompanied by punishment. Though I am not in anyway suggesting that these factors have a causative link to tramping. It is at this stage of my reading simply an observation that interests me.


Tramping Debut 

Davies' records his first impression of America—at least Americans—as follows:

My impression of Americans from the beginning is of the best, and I have never since had cause to alter my mind. They are a kind, sympathetic race of people and naturally proud of their country. The Irish-American is inclined to be the most bitter, remembering from his youth the complaints of his parents, who were driven through unjust laws from their own beloved land; and such a man is not to be idly aggravated, for life is a serious subject to him.

Davies did not remain long in New York. Anxious to visit Chicago, and, discovering that his remaining funds would not allow him to reach that destination, it was these circumstances, and meeting up with a seasoned tramp, that was to commence his six year period as a American hobo. 


Encounters with American Justice


Davies the Cattleman


Seasoned Hobo

The characters and stories Davies tells of these adventures are rich and entertaining, alternating between paid work and begging, but also frequently having to avoid being robbed. For as well as hoboes and beggars, Davies describes gangs who neither begged nor worked, but lived entirely on thieving from hoboes and beggars. The worst of which where the gangs he encountered after quitting as a cattleman and heading out alone to Chicago to earn money working on a new canal that was then being built some distance from that city. Davies describes how men who, having been paid off and heading to Chicago to spend their earnings, were later found murdered and floating in the canal, having been relieved of their wages. It then became necessary for those who had been paid off, to wait for others and head for Chicago in groups, the better to avoid being attacked. Davies describes how, travelling in just such a manner with two friends, they were likewise accosted but succeeded in chasing their assailants away. A short time later when back again at work on the canal, a friend of Davies, Cockney Tom, recognised the man who tried to rob him and the two engage in a fist fight in which Cockney is the victor. A seemingly modest outcome for someone who had likely, as Davies put it, ‘taken an active part in perhaps fifty or sixty murders’.

At this point of Davies autobiography, it is worth noting that, unlike the American tramp writers in this work in progress, Davies does not attempt to use the terms tramp, hobo, beggar, thief, etc., as classifications of different types. The characters in Davies' autobiography may adopt any one or more of these roles at different times.

His wanderlust having returned, and fifty dollars to the better, Davies now tramps to St. Louis, the city which, coincidently, and according to my calculations, was, at the time of Davies arrival there, home of Thomas Manning Page, the subject of my last post. And here Davies gives one of his few reflections on tramping, being for the most part caught up in the storytelling:

This kind of life was often irksome to me, when I have camped all night alone in the woods, beside a fire, when one good sociable companion might have turned the life into an ideal one. Often have I waked in the night, or early morning, to find spaces opposite occupied by one or two strangers, who had seen the fire in the distance, and had been guided to me by its light.

But Davies was not destined to stay long in St. Louis, as the following passage, testimony to Davies affability and love of the companionship of other vagabonds, describes:

On reaching St. Louis I still had something like forty dollars, and being tired of my own thoughts, which continually upbraided me for wasted time, resolved to seek some congenial fellowship, so that in listening to other men's thoughts I might be rendered deaf to my own. I had bought a daily paper, and had gone to the levee, so that I might spend a few hours out of the sun, reading, and watching the traffic on the river. Seeing before me a large pile of lumber, I hastened towards it, that I might enjoy its shady side. When I arrived I saw that the place was already occupied by two strangers, one being a man of middle age, and the other a youth of gentlemanly appearance. Seating myself, I began to read, but soon had my attention drawn to their conversation. The young fellow, wanting to go home, and being in no great hurry, proposed buying a house-boat and floating leisurely down the Mississippi to New Orleans, from which place he would then take train to Southern Texas, where his home was. "We will go ashore," he said, "and see the different towns, and take in fresh provisions as they are needed." The elder of the two, who had a strong Scotch accent, allowed a little enthusiasm to ooze out of his dry temperament, and agreed without much comment. "Excuse me,gentlemen," I said, "I could not help but hear your conversation and, if you have no objection, would like to share expenses and enjoy your company on such a trip."

Escapades in the Deep South

What started out as a promising adventure—and indeed was not short of such for some time—was curtailed when first the young Texan, and then Davies himself, contracted malaria. Having split up out of necessity, Davies has a near death experience lying feverish in a swamp:

I don't know what possessed me to walk out of this town, instead of taking a train, but this I did, to my regret. For I became too weak to move, and, coming to a large swamp, I left the railroad and crawled into it, and for three days and the same number of nights, lay there without energy to continue my journey. Wild hungry hogs were there, who approached dangerously near, but ran snorting away when my body moved. A score or more of buzzards had perched waiting on the branches above me, and I knew that the place was teeming with snakes. I suffered from a terrible thirst, and drank of the swamp-pools, stagnant water that was full of germs, and had the colours of the rainbow, one dose of which would have poisoned some men to death. When the chill was upon me, I crawled into the hot sun, and lay there shivering with the cold; and when the hot fever possessed me, I crawled back into the shade. Not a morsel to eat for four days, and very little for several days previous. I could see the trains pass this way and that, but had not the strength to call. Most of the trains whistled,and I knew that they stopped either for water or coal within a mile of where I lay. Knowing this to be the case, and certain that it would be death to remain longer in this deadly swamp, I managed to reach the railroad track, and succeeded in reaching the next station, where most of these trains stopped. The distance had been less than a mile, but it had taken me two hours to accomplish. I then paid my way from this station, being in a hurry to reach Memphis, thinking my life was at its close. When I reached that town, I took a conveyance from the station to the hospital. At that place my condition was considered to be very serious, but the doctor always bore me in mind, for we were both of the same nationality, and to that, I believe, I owe my speedy recovery.

Davies now describes, what are for him, the peculiarities of the Southern States. Having previously given away their houseboat to a fisherman because he had no money to buy it, neither any use for it, Davies later got work in a factory producing staves, but was shocked at being paid only in kind (food, clothes and other provisions). At this point of the book, he also describes the character and lives of former slaves who he encounters on his travels, noting that there was little difference in their life before and after the abolition of slavery. They lived in the same shacks, he says, and were paid in kind only, not money, for their labours. Davies also here notes the cruelty and impoverishment of Southern prisons compared to the prisons of the North, that he likens to hotels.

In some places a man would be tried and perhaps fined ten dollars and costs. A citizen, having need of a cheap labourer, would pay this fine, take possession of the prisoner, and make him work out his fine on the farm. This citizen would buy the prisoner cheap overalls, dungarees, shirts, shoes, etc., for a few dollars, and charge the prisoner four times their amount. The prisoner was not free to refuse these, and being forced to work out their price, was kept in this way twice the number of his days. I was very much afraid of all this, although a wandering white man was not in nearly so much danger as a negro.

Entering a small town and seeing congregating groups of whites, all armed with guns, Davies describes his disgust at witnessing a lynching. Like a scene from a Western movie, the men head for the jail where they demand from the sheriff the keys, drag out their black victim, and summarily hang him from a tree. On arrival in New Orleans, Davies is mugged and badly beaten, so heads straight for Texas, visiting many towns along the way. In Paris, Texas, he describes in the town saloon, the mummified heart of another lynching victim, tied in a piece of cord and displayed in a glass case. Given Davies description, this must have been the remains of Henry Smith, who was reportedly tortured with red hot irons for fifty minutes before being burned alive. Smith was accused of murdering the three year old daughter of the town marshal as a result of himself being bullied and beaten by that officer. Davies final anecdote of the Southern states was, that on his arrival in Fort Smith, Arkansas, he witnessed the departure of a specially commissioned and heavily guarded train, transporting a gang of train and bank robbers, including Bill Cook and Cherokee Bill, on their way out of that town. 

Now how much of Davies' narrative has been augmented with local folklore for literary effect, and how much is the author's direct experience (Davies certainly underplays his own role in his adventures), cannot be established. But, as I have previously stated, I am less concerned with historical accuracy than with the knowledge and pleasure I get from reading these tramp narratives. In this respect Davies has not disappointed me. There now follows, in a chapter titled 'The Camp', a description of a tramp 'convention' in a jungle outside Pittsburg, that has some parallels with the similar gathering of tramps described by Thomas Manning Page in my last post. It is following this camp, and on using up the earnings from a spell at fruit picking in Chicago, that Davies, reflecting on lost opportunities, resolves once more to return to England (he does not say Wales). We also learn how Davies recognises the advantages he has over other tramps, and paradoxically (which is a feature of the man), how this advantage has also cursed him:

I had now been in the United States of America something like five years, working here and there as the inclination seized me, which, I must confess was not often. I was certainly getting some enjoyment out of life, but now and then the waste of time appalled me, for I still had a conviction that I was born to a different life. The knowledge that I had the advantage over the majority of strangers in that country, often consoled me when feeling depressed. For my old grandmother had left me one-third profit of a small estate, my share at that time amounting to ten shillings per week, and during these five years I had not drawn one penny, therefore having over a hundred pounds entered to my account. So, when one would say how much he desired to return to his native land, but had no means of doing so, I would then explain how it could easily be done on the cattle boats. And if he protested, saying that he had not the courage to return penniless after so many years abroad, although I had no answer to console him, his objection was a pleasant reminder of my own expectations. It was this knowledge that made me so idle and so indifferent to saving; and it was this small income that has been, and is in a commercial sense, the ruin of my life.


"Ah I" I said, with a sigh, "if during these five years I had had the daily companionship of good books, instead of all this restless wandering to and fro in a strange land, my mind, at the present hour, might be capable of some little achievement of its own."

First Homecoming


Canadian Adventure


... shortly after this idyllic sojourn, Davies career as an American hobo was to come to an abrupt end. Jumping a train from Renfrew in the direction of Winnipeg, Davies was to join the statistics of other casualties of free rail travel:

The train whistled almost before we were ready, and pulled slowly out of the station. I allowed my companion the advantage of being the first to jump, owing to his maimed hand. The train was now going faster and faster, and we were forced to keep pace with it. Making a leap he caught the handle bar and sprang lightly on the step, after which my hand quickly took possession of this bar, and I ran with the train, prepared to follow his ex- ample. To my surprise, instead of at once taking his place on the platform, my companion stood thoughtlessly irresolute on the step, leaving me no room to make the attempt. But I still held to the bar, though the train was now going so fast that I found great difficulty in keeping step with it. I shouted to him to clear the step. This he proceeded to do, very deliberately, I thought. Taking a firmer grip on the bar, I jumped, but it was too late, for the train was now going at a rapid rate. My foot came short of the step, and I fell, and, still clinging to the handle bar, was dragged several yards before I relinquished my hold. And there I lay for several minutes, feeling a little shaken, whilst the train passed swiftly on into the darkness.
   Even then I did not know what had happened, for I attempted to stand, but found that something had happened to prevent me from doing this. Sitting down in an upright position, I then began to examine myself, and now found that the right foot was severed from the ankle.


Tramp Poet

And so, at the age of 29, with a fine new artificial leg, Davies attempted to make the transition from tramp to professional poet...


Literary Success

Augustus John's portrait of Davies

Even now fully engaged as a writer, Davies still made time for tramping expeditions, both to clear his head and provide himself with inspiration for more writing. But I will now jump the rest of the seven years that Davies wrote and published eleven works in Stidulph's Cottage in Kent (he would publish 25 volumes of poetry and prose in his lifetime). I will also miss out his return to London, now aged 43, and his entry into high society; which he embraced and shunned in equal measure. Davies eventual residence in London was a room in Charles Dickens' former house in Bloomsbury, and those who Davies became close to, aside from his first meeting with Bernard Shaw, included: Hilaire Belloc, Walter de la Mare, W. B. Yeats, Ezra Pound, Jacob Epstein, Augustus John, and Edith Sitwell. Davies was to turn his back on all of them in search of a simpler and, for him, more meaningful life.

I pick up Davies story again when, at the age of fifty, and after a series of live-in housekeepers come mistresses, he decides it is time to find a wife and settle down to a more conventional, but also more private, life.


The circumstances surrounding the publication of Young Emma are as strange as the story itself. 


Davies was unaware at the time of meeting Helen that she was pregnant as the result of a rape by a friend's brother. And, as I have already noted, suggestions that Helen was a prostitute are completely unfounded, based only on comments that she might have become a prostitute if Davies had not married her. The story of how Helen nearly died in childbirth (the baby did not survive) and how Davies, himself nearly dying from an infected foot (there is no mention in the book that he has only one), drags himself to the hospital to visit her, is extremely moving and tender. As fanciful as the story is, this is the manner in which Davies met his future wife. An odd couple they certainly were, but clearly in love with one another other, and in spite of the usual domestic disagreements, lived happily together in various country residences until Davies death in 1940, some eighteen years later.

I leave the final words of this saga to Davies, a summing up of (his) tramp life from the end of the penultimate chapter of The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp:

Certainly I have led a worthless, wandering and lazy life, with, in my early days, a strong dislike to continued labour, and incapacitated from the same in later years. No person seemed inclined to start me on the road to fame, but, as soon as I had made an audacious step or two, I was taken up, passed quickly on from stage to stage, and given free rides farther than I expected.

DAVIES TRIVIA: Davies was a distant cousin of the actor Sir Henry Irving. He was awarded an honorary degree from the University of Wales in 1926. As well as Augustus John's painting copied above, there were many other portraits made of Davies in his lifetime. There are to date at least five biographies of Davies, as well as references to him in countless other volumes. Davies can also take credit for the names of the rock band Supertramp and Bristol based soul combo, The Soul Destroyers.

Full story now available in The Lives and Extraordinary Adventures of Fifteen Tramp Writers from the Golden Age of Vagabondage

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